Last Rituals by Ysra Sigurdardottir

Continuing my love affair with Nordic Noir, I picked up this book, Last Rituals, by an author I hadn’t yet read, Ysra Sigurdardottir. Commencing with a suitably grisly discovery, when a young German student’s body is found on a university campus, sans eyes and with eerie markings inscribed on his body, the reader is introduced to Thora Gudmundsdottir, a lawyer who is hired by the family of the young man to investigate his death. While a suspect has been placed in custody, the family don’t believe he’s the culprit. Teaming up with a man sent from Germany to support her investigation, the blunt and seemingly humourless, Matthew Reich, Thora and her new partner uncover not only fascinating aspects of Iceland’s history, but the victim’s enthrallment with the occult. From ancient caves and supernatural and other traditions, burial rights, superstitions and precious documents worth a fortune and which could change history, Thora and Matthew become immersed in a deadly game of hide and seek, power, lies and deception, all tinged with witchcraft and dark magic. Can they break the spell hanging over this case or will they too fall victim to the forces arraigned against them?

What I really enjoy about Nordic Noir is the emphasis on character as much as plot and this book is no exception. As the investigation continues and clues and dead-ends are explored, the reader is invited to get to know single-mother, Thora, and her children and familial life better as well as the professional and slow-burning personal relationship she builds with Max.

History and the wild and majestic Icelandic landscape become as much characters in this book as the murder investigation, adding richness and depth to the sometimes staccato scene changes and otherwise excellent dialogue.

Slow but rewarding, I look forward to more in this series.

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The Physician, by Noah Gordon

The Physician, by Noah Gordon, was recommended to me by a lovely book shop owner in Launceston when I was there one day doing a book-signing. Without telling me too much about the tale, the owner pressed the very thick book into my hands and said, “I think you will love this.” I always feel a shiver of trepidation come over me when someone I like or even whose reading tastes I share says this to me.  More than anything, I want to like, no, love the books that are recommended with such passion and I fear that if I don’t, I am somehow letting them down.

The good news is with The Physician, I did indeed love this book – so much so, I felt bereft when it ended.

Set mostly during the 10th Century, this is the story of a young Englishman, Robert J Cole who, from a very young age, learns he possesses a gift – the gift, basically, of sensing a person’s life force. The reader follows his life from the discovery of this gift around the age of nine to middle age; from the tragedy of his beginnings to the triumphs of his later years. Rob J has a varied and amazing life and how and why he becomes a physician and the journey he takes to train is, quite simply, sensational. We’re taken around England and given insight into the peripatetic life of a Barber-Surgeon (to whom Rob J apprentices himself), to France, across Europe and to war-riven Turkey and then Persia and its amazing culture and religious Otherness. Determined to train under the man he’s been told is the best physician in the world, Rob J makes incredible sacrifices: physical, emotional and, above all, spiritual. But in making these he gains more than his heart and mind’s desire.

The pace is wonderful, the characters so well drawn you feel emotionally attached to them in ways that are sometimes painful but always deep and meaningful. The settings are magnificently and realistically drawn and the different cuisines, the food and drink are mouth-wateringly described. I adored this book – the detail, the humanness of it and the way the macroscosm of the worlds and religions Rob J encounters are also microcosms of the everyday – of the humanity (or lack thereof) in us all.

Shaman is the sequel and I will read that with joy – only, for now, I want to savour the affects of this magnificent book – rightly hailed as a triumph. I cannot recommend it highly enough, so much so, I dare to say, read it, “I think you will love this…”

 

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The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

I finished The Beast’s Garden, the latest novel by one of my all-time favourite authors, Australian writer, Kate Forsyth, a while ago and found myself so deeply affected and moved by the story that I bided my time before reviewing it. I had extreme visceral responses to what’s ostensibly a love story set against the horrendous backdrop of Nazi Germany.

23702432The Beast’s Garden explores the lead up to World War Two: the targeting of the Jews, the pogroms, the “Final Solution”, as well as the resistance movement and the general attitudes and experiences of everyday Germans to the injustice, horror and fear as their leaders declared war against the world. Set between the years 1938-1943 and beyond, the book is very much located in Berlin, the epi-centre of the Nazi regime and tells of the young and beautiful Ava, a woman with the voice of an angel, and how she attracts the attention of a handsome and very Aryan Nazi officer, Leo.

As the book opens, the persecution of the Jews is on the rise, and Ava’s close friends, the Fiedlers, especially their children, homosexual Rupert and his sister, Jutta – are subjected to incredible hardship, particularly Rupert, through whom we experience the utter desolation and cruelty of Buchenwald. Concomitant with this is the ascent of the Nazi party and the officers whose names were to become part of global history and stark reminders of humans’ capacity for cruelty – Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, etc. As the Fiedlers descend into poverty and become increasingly marginalised and disempowered, Ava’s star, as a singer of talent, is on the rise and yet, she resists what is being offered to her, aware of the injustices being meted out around her and feeling powerless to make a difference… that is, until she meets a group of courageous people.

What makes this book so unique in terms of story, apart from setting a passionate love story against such a dire and harrowing backdrop (which made it richer and deeper – out of great ugliness, beauty and love still rise and shine), is the fact it focuses on both ordinary everyday German people and the hardship they also experienced, their revulsion towards what was happening to the Jews and their efforts (often at the risk of their own lives and that of their families) to extend help and alleviate suffering and a specific wing of the German military – the intelligence services and the officers serving within it. While there were those who revelled in the downfall of a people they came to blame for all their social ills, there were so many other brave souls – outside and within the machinery of war – many of whom died for their selfless efforts. Forsyth is at pains to acknowledge these people, her exhaustive research paying homage to the risks they took and their humanity in the face of such danger and suffering.

Peppered with real figures and events (some of which are obscure in terms of familiar history, but oh so powerful), it’s a huge credit to Forsyth that the book is never didactic. It’s also testimony to Forsyth’s beautiful prose, the way her sentences flow and gather momentum, ironically building a crumbling world as she describes the beauty of a snow-covered Strasse, the brutality of the commandant’s wife at Buchenwald, and Rupert’s attempts to inscribe meaning upon his bleak existence. Her words grab you by the throat and heart and don’t let you go.

The overall narrative is loosely based on the old Grimm tale of the “Singing Springing Lark” which has been retold in various renditions as “Beauty and the Beast”. This poignant, traumatic and yet soul-stirring book is far more than a retelling of a famous fairy-tale. It’s a record of a time we should never forget – of our ability to transcend evil, through love, kindness, and connection but also of the darkness that lurks inside some people and how sometimes, we allow that to blot out the light and in doing so, we all suffer.

In the spirit of never forgetting, I feel I should also contextualise the reason for my intense response to this book. Of German-Jewish descent, I lost almost all my family to the Holocaust – Mendelssohn was our family name and, yes, we’re related to the composer, Felix (whose music Hitler banned). My great-grandfather (who was interred in Buchenwald and later died, alongside his wife, my great-grandmother, Ilse, in Tereisenstadt), also being a Felix. It was always driven home to me, by my grandmother, who escaped to Israel in her late teens/early twenties before coming to Australia, that her parents and family were first and foremost German. They were not even practising Jews and so were shocked and in total disbelief at what happened to them, their neighbours and extended family – how their birthright as Jews was turned against them in such profound and evil ways – their shared German history and undeniable loyalty to their country counting for nothing.

With every page, I felt I wasn’t just stepping into a version of history, but into personal history. It was a hard but worthwhile journey in so many ways. I thank Kate for that.

This is a wonderful addition to Forsyth’s growing body of work – from her simply addictive and clever fantasy books to her extraordinary works of historical fiction – all of which rate among my much-loved books.

Though I found myself alternately reeling, crying, sighing, having to put the book down and walk away; though memories of my own family and the stories I’d been told resurfaced and bubbled like a cauldron, I cannot recommend this book highly enough for lovers of history, great writing, and tightly plotted and executed stories that remain with you days and weeks afterwards. Simply superb.

 

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Book Review: Snow White Must Die

Snow White Must Die (Bodenstein & Kirchhoff, #4)

Knowing how much I enjoy crime novels, a friend (thank you, Cornelia!) recommended to me that I try Nelle Neuhaus and suggested the disturbingly titled Snow White Must Die as an introduction to her work. Opening with an intriguing prologue, it’s when the novel proper starts that I was really hooked. Snow Must Die centres on Tobias Sartorius, who after serving eleven years in prison for the murder of two lovely young girls, returns to his home and the place where the crimes took place. While there are those who believe in Tobias’ protests of innocence and point to the fact he was charged on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone, and have remained loyal, there are many more who are not only out for revenge and bitter and angry, but are harbouring secrets that Tobias’ presence among them and the memories he threatens to disturb.

Finding his home and the town a shadow of its former self, Tobias is rattled. When attacks upon first his family and then those who would aid him occur, Tobias and the police called to investigate, understand that dark forces and people with deadly motives are operating.

Early in the story, Pia Kirchhoff and her boss, DS Oliver Von Bodenstein are brought in to investigate the brutal assault of a 51-year-old woman. When they understand she is linked to Tobias, they find they are asking more questions than they are receiving answers and what made sense to police and detectives over ten years ago, no longer holds true. Keen to reopen Tobias’ case, there is at first no reason, but it isn’t long before one is found…

The town in which the novel is set, Altenhain in Germany is as much a character as the barflies that take up space in the main diner. Once prosperous, it teeters on ruin and decay, functioning as a metaphor for what it’s both facilitated and hidden for over a decade.

Filled with interesting characters with credible back stories and complex and rich personal lives, Snow White Must Die doesn’t only focus on crime and criminals but on the impact of violence upon individuals and families and the influence being in the police force has on relationships as well.

Like Tobias, his father and the young Goth, Aemlia, and her friend, Theis, the police personnel, Pia and Oliver, are flawed, passionate and loyal, and the tensions in their professional and personal relationships simmer on the page.

Fast-paced, ofttimes violent, the novel is unrelenting in exposing the parochial attitudes that can afflict certain groups with pecuniary and other interests to protect and no moral centre. This is where Tobias and the friends he makes as well as Pia and Oliver come into their strengths. Each in their own way provides an ethical touchstone for events, even when their actions do not always accord with the collective moral compass – but then their own notions of right and wrong do and consequences ensue.

Towards the end, the pace staggers to a crawl and while much of what occurs in the last few pages is essential to the narrative, and great to read, there is a sense in which it goes on a tad long. Not that I minded because I really enjoyed the book. Though I did wonder just how much more poor Tobias could take!

As it is, cannot wait to read the next one of Neuhuas’ books I’ve bought: Big Bad Wolf.

 

 

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Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

This was a strange book, but not in a bad way. Described as an historical thriller that’s set in Germany during the late 1600s, it tells the story of the hangman in the town of Schongau, Jakob Kuisl’s, efforts to exonerate a midwife accused of witchcraft and the murder of three orphan children and other sundry crimes. Uniting with the town’s young doctor, Simon, Jakob finds himself in a race against time to prove the midwife’s innocence before he’s forced to first torture her then put her to death. With the town’s Burgers refusing to listen to reason and wilfully ignoring the dreadful witch purge of decades earlier, and with the villains one step ahead, Jakob needs all his formidable abilities to catch the real perpetrators.

Graphic in the way it discusses the torture process and careful to evoke the period in which its set in terms of sights, sounds and smells, the narrative moves fairly swiftly in the initial sThe Hangman's Daughter (The Hangman's Daughter #1)tages before stalling a little in the middle and racing to the end. Though an easy and quite enjoyable read, there were elements I struggled with in the book.

Despite being titled The Hangmans’ Daughter, the daughter, Magdalena Kuisl, a feisty, smart and very beautiful young woman, is little more than a secondary character. The story very much belongs to her father, Jakob, a man with conscience and a heart who takes his job (and the requisite drink he must down before being called to execute or torture) very seriously. As if to atone for the death he delivers, Jakob is also a self-educated healer of extraordinary talent and experience. The reasons for this are made clear in the prologue which provides a context for the rather schizoid personality Jakob occasionally exhibits, whether its as a righteous father warning an amorous suitor (usually, the town’s young doctor) away from his daughter, or whispering words of compassion to an intended victim. A big man, Jakob engenders fear and grudging respect from those he encounters, even while his occupation assures he and his family will always remain outcasts.

So, while I did enjoy the story, I didn’t love it. I found it became bogged down with chases here and there and dead ends and felt padded at times. The villains were also two-dimensional and oddly portrayed. There were moments when they were mysterious and elusive, at others, they stepped from the shadows and behaved with all the skill of a keystone cop. The main villain was also never fleshed out (and pardon the pun there – which will become clear if you read it). He started off being quite scary but, by the end, was more tiresome and contradictory. Likewise with the character known as “moneybags”. Maybe it’s the translation, but when he’s revealed, there are inaccuracies in his portrayal that jarred. Ultimately, because of this and other parts of the action (which occur, rather conveniently, off-stage) the climax is turned into a bit of an anti-climax.

I also found the use of modern idiom difficult to believe. At first, it gave rather a fresh flavour to the book, brought the Middle Ages into a more contemporary setting. When I encountered metaphors like “bun in the oven” to refer to a pregnancy and increasingly more contemporary patois, I found it took away from the rather excellent scene-setting and period evocation that Pötzsch does so well.

There was also a tendency to place contemporary mores and thoughts in the minds of those who, anyone with a slight grasp of the era knows, were unlikely to exist. For example, some of the young doctor’s and hangman’s dismissal of certain medical practices in favour of what we know work now didn’t ring true. An amount of scepticism might have been accounted for, but the hangman particularly looked upon the studies of the doctors of his era with utter disdain and disregard. Admittedly, Pötzsch was able to provide the names of books and philosophers that the hangman preferred, but even so, his skills smacked more of twenty-first century hindsight than they did knowledge gained through wartime experience or seventeenth century reading.

Overall, however, the novel was a good diversion, a romp through Bavaria in the 1600s with an element of mystery and lots of gore. What I enjoyed most about it was learning that Pötzsch was inspired by his own family history – it turns out he’s a descendant of a lineage of executioners – the Kuisl’s and Jakob and his daughter were real people. To turn an element of his own past into such a interesting adventure (and there are more books in the series) shows writing and imaginative flair indeed.

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